Looking Back: Mile 1, Bone Cancer to Boston Marathon

In August 2016, I celebrated seven years of being cancer-free.

Seven years is a lifetime. And it was just yesterday.

I was only thirty years old at the time, juggling life as working mom of a toddler and infant. And, oh yeah, training for the Boston Marathon during the in-between.

I had exactly two options at the time. I could crawl into a corner and die. Or I could continue moving forward with life. I chose the later.

During that time, I chronicled my Cancer Marathon through a series of Facebook posts. I will be re-sharing a few of these posts this month. I hope they inspire you, no matter the difficulty of the life race you are currently running. You never know what you are capable of until you try.

* * * * *

I have cancer.

Ok, now that we got that out of the way, let me tell you about the craziest two weeks ever. Maybe not the craziest weeks in the history of the world, but definitely the craziest weeks ever in my 30 years of existence.

Most of you have absolutely no clue that nothing is amiss in the world of Carmen, so I’ll do my best to get you caught up. So here it goes…

Let’s start at the beginning with how this whole cancer thing began to transpire…

About a year ago I started having excruciating pain in my left knee. It would hurt running, walking up and down stairs, etc. It would last for a day or two and then completely disappear for another month or so.

At the time I was pregnant with my second child, so I asked my OB about the pain. She attributed it to the normal pains that every pregnant woman endures.  So in addition to stretch marks, lower back pain, and ridiculously inflated chest, this baby was screwing up my knees. Awesome.

Every time I would get a flare up I would curse the “joy of pregnancy” and pop a bunch of Tylenol. Unfortunately, when you’re preggers, the powers that be dictate that you can’t ingest anything that might even remotely harm the baby including and not limited to alcohol, sushi, feta cheese and pain killers that actually work. Ironically, what was actually at play inside my body was much more sinister than a couple of Aleve.

My pregnancy was very uneventful other than this occasional knee pain. I didn’t even have morning sickness.  Always the overachiever, I was quite proud of myself when my obstetrician declared it a “textbook pregnancy.”

I was bound and determined not to resemble a beached whale, so I worked hard to remain active the entire pregnancy including running until the day I delivered. I use “running” in the loosest sense as towards the end it was closer to a fast waddle than actual running. My husband Vince could actually walk faster than I was running. But I was out there doing it, and that’s all that mattered to me.

Porter, my second son, was born on June 13.  Even though I was a scheduled induction and not in labor when I arrived at the hospital, I asked for an epidural the second I got there. The nurse informed me that she would gladly call the anesthesiologist, but I first would need to put my bags down and get into a hospital gown.

Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, it was a pain-free and easy labor and delivery. I actually felt pretty great afterward. Well, as great as you can be after pushing a 7-pound 8-ounce human being out of my most private parts.

I showed restraint and waited a whole three weeks to resume running. I busted out my brand new double jogging stroller and began a quest to visit every paved trail in Northeast Ohio with my newly expanded family.

I continued to have knee pain through the summer and fall, but it was less intense and more sporadic. I had read that the pregnancy hormones remain in your body while you are nursing so I chalked it up to residual pregnancy pain. So I popped some Aleve (finally the good stuff!) and kept logging the miles.

In September, three months after Porter was born, I ran the Akron Half Marathon. I wasn’t in the best of shape, and still packing some Porter pregnancy pounds, but my brother and sister-in-law goaded me into it. Never one to step away from a challenge, I toed the line for the 13.1-mile race. The last few miles were pretty ugly, but I still managed to squeak out a respectable 1:54.

In January I started training for the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon. This would be my third marathon, and my plan was to run it with Vince and my two college teammates, Lisa and Libbie.

As I increased my mileage, my knee started hurting more often to the point it was chronic. I was constantly icing and stretching to keep it under control. When I stopped running and switched to cross training, I had no pain at all.

Despite the knee pain during running, I felt great and was running really well. My workouts were tracking to a 3:10-3:15 marathon which would be a 12-17 minute PR for me and easily qualify me for the Boston Marathon. In fact, I ran a 5K time trial in early February of 19:36 which was right on pace. This was a time I hadn’t seen since college which was ten years and two babies ago.

Finally, in mid-February, I did a painful 2 hour run on hills at the nearby South Chagrin Park. With every step, it felt like my left leg might crumble.

I was getting pretty annoyed about my injury. After conducting meticulous internet research, I diagnosed myself with a bad case of tendonitis. Treatment for tendonitis? Rest.

I don’t do rest. I especially don’t do rest when I have a marathon to run in a few short months. So I decided to see a doctor in hopes that he would have a magical drug that would cure my tendonitis and let me get back to my 50 miles a week training regime as soon as possible.

I had never seen a sports medicine doctor, so I had to find a suitable one first. By “suitable” I meant someone who at minimum treated a lot of runners and ideally was a runner. Dr. Nilesh Shah was pretty well known in the Northeast Ohio running community. Good. And he was a runner. Even better. And he went to my alma mater. Even more better. And he happened to a member of the same fraternity as my husband. Sold.

Now that I had found my man, I had to make an appointment. Unfortunately, it was about a week and a half before I could get an appointment. During this time I was really worried about ”losing my fitness” and hurting my marathon prospects. So I replicated my workouts on the bike and elliptical as best I could.  In retrospect, I find this hilarious. Losing my fitness should have been the least of my worries.

On February 25, I was finally scheduled to see Dr. Shah. Runners tend to get a handful of injuries, most of them due to overuse. My self-diagnosed tendonitis falls squarely into this category. I had no symptoms other than knee pain. No fatigue. No night sweats. And my pain got better with rest.  Definitely an overuse injury.

So as my appointment approached, I almost called it off. His office was pretty far away and I was really busy at work and didn’t think I could afford to take an entire afternoon off. After all, he was just going to tell me what I already knew –diagnosis: tendonitis, cause: too much running, cure: ice and rest.

Thankfully, I did abandon my workaholic ways for a few hours and made the trek to Dr. Shah’s office. Appropriately, it was a cold, overcast and just generally dreary afternoon.

Before I saw the doctor I had two medical students examine me. This wasn’t the first time I’ve had medical students at a doctor’s appointment, so I knew the drill. They poke and prod you all over, ask a ridiculous amount of questions, take an equally ridiculous amount of notes and then tell you of nothing of any sort of medical value. But I understand that this is part of the education process of the physicians of the future, so I was a good sport and went along with it.

As predicted, they manipulated my leg in all sorts of pretzel-like configurations, asked a bunch of questions (“Have you been running long? Do you have any other pain? Are you wearing good shoes to run in? Blah, blah, blah”) and filled up their notepads with a short novel on my health history. Afterward, they looked a little baffled and said that Dr. Shah would need to examine me further. That should have been Sign #1 That Things Aren’t Going Very Well. However, I just chalked it up to run of the mill medical student greenness.

The medical students scurried out of the room and a few minutes later Dr. Shah came in. As he examined my knee, we talked about our shared alma mater and people we both knew from the fraternity. Someone overhearing our idle conversation would have thought we were chit chatting at a dinner party instead of in a sterile medical examination room.

After Dr. Shah had finished examining me, and we had exhausted the pleasantries, he said he wanted me to get an x-ray since the issue wasn’t readily apparent.

There was a x-ray room across the hall, so I went and got the pictures taken while the doctor went and saw another patient.

Once our respective tasks were complete, we reconvened in Dr. Shah’s office. As he was seeing a patient, he hadn’t had a chance to review my scans yet. So he brought them up on the computer, and we sat down to review them together for the first time.

He brought up the first image on the computer. “Hmm that doesn’t look normal,” he mumbled and quickly flipped to the second image.

And then he went totally white. Considering he is a dark-skinned Indian man, this was quite disconcerting. Sign #2 Things Aren’t Going Very Well.

And then he bolted from his chair and abruptly left the room. Sign #3 Things Aren’t Going Very Well.

As I waited for him to return, I tried to flip through a fashion magazine I had pilfered from the waiting room earlier. But deep down I knew things were deeply wrong, and I just couldn’t concentrate on what the latest styles from New York Fashion Week were. So I blankly stared at the pages and waited and waited and waited.

When he returned, I could tell things were completely different. Gone was the breezy conversation of before – he was all business.

“I apologize for leaving like that. I noticed an abnormality on your left distal femur bone and wanted to consult with another doctor. We’re not sure what it is – X-rays aren’t the sharpest tool in diagnosis. It could be something as simple as bone loss from the pregnancy, or it could be something more. We won’t know until we do further tests. You need to get an MRI. And you need to get it soon .”

That’s when I realized I didn’t have tendonitis. Probably fueled by wishful thinking, I latched on to “bone loss due to pregnancy” part and didn’t even consider any other possibilities. I already began plans to up my calcium intake and implementing a schedule to wean Porter.

I had my initial appointment on a Wednesday and had the MRI late on a Friday afternoon. As I was leaving the imaging facility, Dr. Shah was calling and inquiring why the techs hadn’t uploaded my scans yet. Let’s be honest; most doctors are headed home or to happy hour on a Friday at 5 PM. They don’t stay late unless there is a problem. Sign #4 Things Aren’t Going Very Well.

The imaging facility gave me a copy of my leg images on CD, so I spent the weekend Googling “MRI images of the knee”. While the internet has a lot of info, it’s no substitute for medical school, and I was unable to diagnose anything.

On Sunday night, I checked my phone and saw that there was a voicemail from Dr. Shah. He didn’t say much – just asking that I call him back on his cell phone – but his voice has a sense of gravity and urgency. Doctors don’t call you on a Sunday night and give you their personal cell phone numbers.  I was pretty sure he wasn’t calling to invite us to the next fraternity reunion.  Sign #5 Things Aren’t Going Very Well.

With trembling hands, I immediately called him back. Voicemail. I left a rambling, nonsensical message and waited for a callback.

In the meantime, life goes on. Tomorrow was a work day, which meant there was a toddler to bathe and a baby to feed before bedtime. Vince tackled bathtime with Dominic, our three-year-old, and I sat down to nurse Porter.

I was a wreck. My mind was racing recklessly from one extreme possibility to another, and a million butterflies flapped frantically inside my belly.

Finally, after an eternity and a day, my phone rang. It was Dr. Shah.

“I’m sorry to call you at home, but I didn’t want to wait until our next appointment. I had my colleague, an orthopedic oncologist, review your MRI images. He thinks it’s a cancerous tumor. I am so sorry.”

Completely blown away by what I just heard, I repeatedly muttered “But it was supposed to be tendonitis” and he kept repeating “I am so sorry.” After several rounds of this disjointed back and forth, I eventually let the poor man off the phone.

And that’s when I started sobbing uncontrollably. My whole body heaved with every sob. Instead of tear drops, huge streams of water gushed out of my eyes, down my cheek, and onto my beloved baby boy peacefully nestled in my chest.

I couldn’t have made up a more glaringly ironic situation. Here I was simultaneously giving life to another human being while learning that my life may be taken away.

Vince whisked Dominic out of the bathtub, threw a towel around him and rushed downstairs to be my side. And there we sat crying, cuddling our boys and holding each other.

I saw the aforementioned colleague of Dr. Shah’s, the orthopedic oncologist, the next day. He scheduled a bone biopsy to confirm the diagnosis and identify the strain of cancer.

That happened four days later, on Thursday.  After the surgery, while I was still in the recovery room fighting off the effects of anesthesia, the orthopedic oncologist pulled Vince and my parents into a small waiting room and told them it was confirmed – I have cancer.

. . .

The biopsy sample had to be sent away to a lab for review and typing. I received the official diagnosis a week later on Wednesday, March 11. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Diffuse B Cell to be exact.

As soon as I found out, I made the obligatory phone calls to Vince and my parents. Then it was time to take my first official step as a cancer patient – declare myself.

I’m a bit of internet addict. Ok, a lot of one. I shop on Amazon. I rent movies from NetFlix. I blog. I read other people’s blogs. I only subscribe to newspapers for the coupons thanks to CNN.com. I listen to music on Pandora. I fritter away too much time on YouTube.

And I Facebook. A lot. I love having the ability to connect to so many people from my current and past lives in such a succinct but rich way.

So it was only natural that I declare my new life status via a Facebook status update. Among the inane updates about what my friends ate for breakfast or their thoughts on the upcoming NBA playoffs, there was my simple declaration:

I have cancer. Lymphoma.

Almost immediately I began to receive comments of sympathy, well wishes and prayers. I heard from people I talk to daily and people I hadn’t seen since grade school. Each time I refreshed the page, the number of respondents would seemingly double. I read and re-read and read again each and every word that people had written. And each time I did I felt stronger and braver, knowing that I had a huge cyber-team supporting me as I start this journey.

I’m thirty years old. I’ve never had a cavity. In seventeen years of running, I’ve never experienced anything worse than shin splints (and a dog bite). I drink organic milk. I ran the Boston Marathon. I once did a 5-mile race nine months pregnant while pushing a toddler in a jogging stroller. I thought people like me don’t get cancer.

But I did.

I have cancer.

I have a husband who is my best friend (and also pretty darn cute). I have a baby and a toddler who are the center of my universe. I have awesome parents and an equally awesome gaggle of friends. I have a job that I’m not that bad at that both challenges me and helps pay the mortgage.  And my much-loved hobby, running, fills in the rest of the gaps.

I refuse to lose any of it.

I have an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic tomorrow, followed by presumably more tests. Once all the results are back a course of treatment will be developed.

Hopefully, if you’ve actually read this far, I didn’t disappoint you with my retelling of the craziest two weeks ever. Obviously, I’d rather none of this had happened. But I’m ready to take this Cancer Marathon on, one mile at a time.

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